After last week's episode of Low Winter Sun greedily went for a second helping of the grim tone and characterization that was so generously applied to the series premiere, episode three sees the show make a different choice, something akin to switching to American Coney Island after two weeks of gorging on Lafayette. It's a chance for the series to reach for something different, and in this case, a bit lighter; it's also an opportunity for Lennie James to nosh on a different kind of scenery between bouts of quoting scripture and face-on-face meetings with enterprising criminals and their doting spouses.
And while, 'No Rounds' still has many of the fundamental issues that plagued the first two episodes, especially in terms of structure and slushy displays of sentiment and passion that take the idea of an unrestrained, raw performance and practically turn it into an assault on the audience; it benefits greatly from offering a well-timed bromide of simple cop-show tropes delivered with an unusually smiling performance from former Castle captain and fedora enthusiast Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Of course Captain Dawson is getting heat from a politician with regard to solving McCann's murder, and of course he's got something witty to say about having parts of his body being figuratively chewed off or forcibly removed during said conversation because that's how cops on cop shows talk, right? And yet, strangely enough, the familiarity of it all was like a breath of fresh air; it gave Strong and Santiago-Hudson a chance to do something other than scowl or symbolically flush memories down the toilet and set fire to houses. It was that small shred of levity the series so desperately needed in the first two offerings.
There's the same sort of thing going on in the scenes where Agnew and Geddes attempt to discredit an eyewitness who saw them dump McCann's body. For as tightly wound as the series has been so far, watching the two cops poke holes in some poor working-class stiff who's just trying to do the right thing (and earn a little reward money to boot) is actually more fun than anyone who'd seen the first two episodes would think this series capable of. It is another side to Low Winter Sun that, had it arrived earlier, might've had a more positive impact on the initial reaction to the show.
In that regard, Strong and James display a kind of deft composure in their collaborative attempt to harm the reputation of the man who could potentially bring them down. The scene is played without any sense of desperation on either man's behalf because there's no real competition here; it's a sparring match to get them into fighting shape when the real challenge arrives. Sure, all this ties in a little too neatly with Frank's extra-curricular activities at a local boxing gym that wind up becoming more of a unique form of self-flagellation than actual exercise, but at least there was some semblance of a framework to the proceedings.
At this point the most interesting thing Low Winter Sun has going for it are the verbal sparring matches between Mark Strong and David Costabile. Watching two strong actors play characters resigned to doing a performance of their own and doing it well is a rare thing indeed. It seems like a difficult thing for actors to play convincing liars, or to engage in the act of lying without the fact becoming too obvious and overtaking the entire performance. One of the best executions of this was in the second season of Homeland, when Carrie and Brody met at his hotel bar in 'New Car Smell' and tried figure out exactly what and how much the other knew, while wondering the entire time whether or not they were simply being played by a master of deceit.
While it's certainly not at the same level (and at this point in the narrative, the stakes aren't nearly as high) there's a nice hint of something similar going on in the scene where Agnew and Boyd share information with one another. Of course, it's "sharing" in the loosest sense of the word, as the whole thing is merely a fact-finding mission by either man to better ascertain exactly what it is they're up against. Strong turns off his grimace and becomes affable enough to win the Simon Boyd Least Distrusted Award, and suddenly there's chemistry on the show between two characters who, to a great extent, drive the entire plot.
But that's where much of the narrative is still lacking. So far, Low Winter Sun hasn't figured out how to push its characters in any direction, let alone the directions they need to go in order to propel the plot. Right now, the show just feels directionless; the narrative is simply adrift, and from the look of it, there's no one running to take the helm. The characters managed to show something different in 'No Rounds'; now it's time for the series' storyline to do the same.
Low Winter Sun continues next Sunday with 'Catacombs' @10pm on AMC.